10.02.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The South China Sea: The Situation May Aggravate

web_120207-N-LP801-017-131653_copy1It seems we are actually observing the process of the development of a series of alarming events in the “Indo-Pacific Area”, and the foreign policy activity of the last months by leaders in a number of principal regions appears be poorly motivated .

In particular, special attention should be given to all that is occurring in the subregion of South-East Asia (SEA). Although there are other “suspicious” areas requiring similar attention, for example, the Korean Peninsula, the islands of Senakuku/Diaoyu,and the Formosa Strait.

The original element of SEA, the South China Sea (SCS), connects the Indian and Pacific oceans into one area. Together with the Strait of Malacca, the SCS is the key and the most vulnerable section, perhaps the most important maritime trade route in modern geopolitics and global economy, extending from the zone of the Persian Gulf and the East coast of Africa.

In addition to this, underneath the SCS itself, according to some data (although not confirmed so far), there may be the same amount of hydrocarbons fuels as in the area of the Persian Gulf.

Consequently, the fight for control over the offshore areas of the SCS and territories located along its coasts (which de-facto has long been conducted between China, on one side, and the US, Japan, and India on the other) have interweaved economic, political, and military-strategic motives.

Note that it was the last two motives that gave the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, a reason to visit India in the end of October last year. In the course of talks with his Indian peer, Narendra Modi, the parties principally agreed upon the sale to Vietnam of four patrol cutters for the Vietnamese Maritime Border Guard Service, at a price of 100 million dollars. The details of the agreement will be worked out through the military departments.

In the course of the meeting, the Vietnamese guest called India “as one of the major world powers to contribute to the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes“. Those commenting on the outcomes of the visit and on the declarations of the distinguished Vietnamese guest had no doubt that they were linked with another abrupt escalation of hostilities between Vietnam and China over several coral archipelagos in the SCS.

In May 2014, China deployed an offshore drilling rig in the area of the Paracel Islands, with the goal of oil exploration and production. However, Vietnam claims to possess these islands and sent its patrol boats to the area where exploration and production operations started. A Chinese border patrol ship present in that area began to literally “drive out” the competitors, which resulted in two Vietnamese boats being damaged and several crew members being injured.

The latter event triggered unprecedented in their scale anti-Chinese manifestations in Vietnam, which resulted in destruction of anything that the crowd deemed to be “Chinese” property, leading to considerable loss of life. The Vietnamese leaders had to extend considerable effort to cope with the riot.

It should be acknowledged that the Chinese side took steps to relieve tensions. In July, the ill-fated drilling rig was removed from the disputed area “since the work has been completed,” and in October talks at the level of the Deputy Prime Ministers were undertaken in Hanoi. In the official photographs, both high officials shake each other’s hands and radiate smiles full of optimism.

In conclusion of the talks the sides again agreed to a “final decision” about the territorial disputes. Remarkable, however, that the above-mentioned visit of the head of the Vietnamese government to India took place just the day after the Chinese-Vietnamese talks in Hanoi.

Everything happening in the SCS is closely watched by Washington, which since the 1950’s has used different military and political instruments here. From these, a special place is held for the process of forming two-sided military and political alliances, both informal and “documented”, with some of the coastal countries.

It is India and Vietnam that are increasingly becoming unofficial military-political alliances of the United States. However, Japan remains the key official ally, whose weight in a bilateral alliance, in affairs in “The Indo-Pacific area,” in general and in SEA, and in particular, is continuously growing.

For Japan, smooth operation of the above-mentioned trade root passing through the SCS is a question of life and death. It is because after the decommissioning of almost all of its nuclear power plants Japan’s energy now is 90% dependent on export of hydrocarbons, which are in enormous quantities exported from the Persian Gulf. Therefore, the political and military groups in Japan are paying more and more attention to the countries of SEA and the situation, as it unfolds in the SCS.

This attention has all chances to obtain quite specific fulfilment in connection with “relief” of recent harsh restrictions on the sale of weapons of their own production, and in the form of using armed forces abroad. In this regard, of all the countries of SEA, the most prospective partners for Japan are the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Vietnam.

The last reason to pay attention to the growing presence of Japan in the SCS is the landmark statement made by the head of the US Pacific Command, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, on January 29, 2015.

In particular, the statement contains a thesis about how the “allies, partners and friends in the region will look to the Japanese more and more as a stabilizing function“. Commentators on this statement speak about how this speech may give way to significant expansion of the patrol zone of Japanese maritime surveillance planes.

In existing plans, this zone is limited by the East-China Sea, where tensions have not reduced in Japanese-Chinese relations in connection with the problem of ownership of the islands of Senakuku/Diaoyu. Hypothetically, inclusion of this zone into the SCS would signify that Japanese surveillance would cover the entire maritime lane adjacent to the PRC, and most likely, all coastal land with uncertain depth of penetration into the Chinese territory.

The statement by R. Thomas triggered the expected negative reaction in China. Already on January 30, 2015, at a regular briefing, press secretary of the Foreign Ministry, spokesperson Hua Chunying, in response to the corresponding question, noted that the situation in the SCS was stable, and counselled that “countries, located outside the region”, should refrain from actions facilitating the disruption of this stability.

Attention is drawn to the contradiction in the meaning of “the messages” sent to Japan by the US foreign and defence departments. The first one periodically calls on Japan to solve the problems with its neighbours in the spirit of peace and understanding.

But the statement from the commander of a powerful group of American military forces appears to be openly provocative. It only promotes a widening of the geographical confrontation between two major Asian powers, transferring it to the South China Sea.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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